It’s a common story: Someone hires a designer to create a site in WordPress. Things go well at first, and the site is nearing completion when the client asks an important question, “I like it — well, mostly — but can you change one little thing?” The designer’s eyes grow wide as he pauses for a second before slowly stammering the words, “Well, WordPress can’t do that.” At MPWR Design, we’ve encountered people who faced this very scenario several times before and are hesitant to use WordPress as a result. But is this statement even true? Does WordPress really have that many limitations? Let’s dig a little deeper into how WordPress works and find out.
WordPress from a user’s perspective vs. a developer’s perspective
When users think of WordPress, a few things come to mind. WordPress offers a huge assortment of themes and plugins — over 3,200 themes and 55,000 plugins are available free of charge from WordPress.org, and many others are available from other sources. We’ve even created a plugin here at MPWR Design, and you can download our Latest Post Redirect plugin for free if you haven’t already done so. Users might also think of the WordPress Dashboard as a distinctive feature that separates WordPress from other content management systems.
All of those aspects are true, but for developers, WordPress is much more than that. From a development standpoint, WordPress also offers a custom set of open-source code built on a programming language called PHP. This is known as the WordPress Codex and all of the WordPress custom functions can be found online in the Codex.
Importantly, because WordPress is built on PHP, that means a WordPress site can do essentially everything any other PHP site can do. Developers have used WordPress sites to create amazing things! Numerous major news agencies use WordPress. WordPress can hook into custom APIs — for example, real estate agents can use WordPress and connect to the MLS database or a company can feed WordPress data into a dedicated smartphone app. WordPress sites can even control smart home “internet of things” devices. The possibilities are almost endless. Why, then, are so many people told, “WordPress can’t do that?”
Designers vs. developers
We live in a world where barriers to entry are lower than ever before. That’s great for many reasons — for example, if you want to be a published author, you don’t have to hope a traditional publisher picks you up as self-publishing is accessible to almost everyone. But it also means that, in many professions, anyone can claim to be a professional, whether they really are or not. For example, anyone with a digital SLR camera can claim to be a professional photographer. Some industries still have high barriers to entry — doctors and dentists, for example — but others do not.
Website design is one of those fields with a low barrier to entry. Anyone can create a website — in fact, we offer a course to help you do just that! — but we’ll fully admit that taking a short course doesn’t give you the tools you need to be a professional website designer, simply because the bar is higher in any industry when you become a professional. You can buy a DSLR and take a short course to learn to take great pictures, but that doesn’t give you the knowhow you need to shoot a big event like a wedding when a lot of expertise is required to capture every important moment perfectly.
But why does this even matter? Think back to the scenario above. When working professionally in website design, clients will often want to tweak things. When the “Can you change one little thing?” questions begin, someone whose knowledge is limited to a short course may not have all the answers. And what has become increasingly common is blaming the software. “Oh, sorry, but WordPress can’t do that.” We’ve already established that this answer is likely incorrect. The actual answer is more like, “I’m sorry, but I don’t have the knowledge to do that” — but many barely-professional website designers don’t want to admit the limits of their knowledge. As a result, WordPress takes heat when it shouldn’t, and the bevy of faux-professionals risk giving a great tool a bad reputation at no fault of its own. The customer gets understandably frustrated but blames the software when the fault actually lies with the designer.
When hiring a professional to assist you with your website, it’s important to understand the difference between a website designer and a website developer. A designer might be completely proficient but might also only know how to click a few buttons to get to the right box in the WordPress Dashboard. By contrast, a website developer has coding and programming knowledge. A developer might be overqualified for the job but will definitely have the tools to get it done.
In what ways is WordPress actually limited?
Just because WordPress is just as powerful as any other website doesn’t mean its powers are unlimited, and it doesn’t mean that changes are always easy.
WordPress is built on a template system. Every theme specifies how the elements of your website are laid out. Every aspect of the design — fonts, colors, sizes, placement — are all specified in a theme. Changing these elements can be simple but that’s not always the case. Changing the color of your menu fonts, for example, is a simple change that only requires one line of code if the theme doesn’t provide an easy way to do it, but other things that might seem simple sometimes aren’t.
Unlike the “WordPress can’t do that” excuse, “WordPress can’t do that easily” is sometimes legitimate. Some changes require complex scripting and custom development, and one of the biggest costs in having a custom website created is custom design and development work.
Additionally, consider that a website must be able to automatically reproduce the results you want with a lot of variables in play. The most obvious difference is screen sizes. A website has to be able to reproduce your results on a mobile device, tablet, laptop with a small screen, or HD monitor. A lot of designs created to look great on desktop computers don’t translate well to mobile, especially if they use static graphics to place elements at a certain point on the screen. This is true for any website — WordPress or not. These types of issues aren’t WordPress limitations, they’re algorithmic limitations.
Other issues can be challenging specifically for a content management system like WordPress. For example, adding custom (non-linked) text to the menu can be a challenge because WordPress automatically builds that section of the site from the links you specify at Appearance → Menus. Some themes make it challenging to manipulate header logos as well.
Despite these limitations, however, there are lots of reasons to use WordPress. It’s is an extremely versatile platform, and its extendability with themes and plugins as well as the powerful backend make it well worth the few limitations that come with a content management system.